Tomorrow night, the Frank Martin's young Gamecocks get their toughest test of the season so far when they travel to the Big Apple to take on Steve Lavin's St. John's Red Storm in the SEC-Big East Challenge. It's not clear yet whether this year's Red Storm have what it takes to repeat 2010-2011's NCAAT season, but this is still a very talented, athletic Big East team that will pose a new level of challenge for Carolina. The game also features some of the fun and pageantry of playing a storied program. It's befitting, then, that I got was lucky enough to chat with the SB Nation SJU blog Rumble in the Garden to preview the game. Here are my responses to Norman's questions. Below you'll find his responses to my questions.
1. Last year, St. John's coach Steve Lavin took a leave of absence while recovering from prostate surgery. He's now back on the sideline for the Red Storm. Are there any lingering concerns about his health, or is he good to go?
Thankfully, this year has seen the prostate cancer recovery squarely in the rear view for Steve Lavin and the team. He hasn't shown any indication that he has needed extra rest or a reason to step away, he's been energetic on the sidelines, and fully engaged in teaching his young team with a mix of patience and his unique gift of gab and penchant for analogy. (Some of the speculation for the reasons behind Lavin's prolonged absence went fully off of the rails of logic, and played into some of the worst rumor-mongering one can imagine.)
2. St. John's was one of the stories of the season in Lavin's first year in 2010-2011, when Lavin returned the moribund program to glory with several high-profile wins and a return to the NCAA Tournament. Lavin has managed to bring a lot of talent to St. John's as part of this success. However, the team struggled in his absence last year. How do you feel about your chance to get back to the tournament this year?
Steve Lavin's plan, on a couple of occasions, has aimed at 2013-14 for the Red Storm's big leap into relevance. That's not widely discussed, of course - it's hard to sell tickets and engage fans with "wait til next year" in college basketball (or even college football), fans expect a winner every year and howl (or stay away) when their team is losing.
The talent base is very good, but it's also young. And not only is it young, but the incoming players have tended more towards "athletic" than to "fundamentally strong." Not that they're poor players; they do need some work in honing their individual talents to a team concept. Talent doesn't get the wins in college ball - talent needs scheme, training, and defense.
All of which is to say that the NCAA Tournament is a large leap for this team. The team you see on the floor will change. The players are learning to play with each other, and as many as 3 more players will earn major minutes - pout guard Jamal Branch, eligible in December; Orlando Sanchez, currently awaiting NCAA ruling on whether he's a junior or a senior (why so long? Is there some other issue? We don't know.); and Marc-Antoine Bourgault, who hasn't earned much time but will add a shooting dimension to the team.
Steady improvement, the NIT, and a few bubble mentions would be real progress for St. John's.
3. St. John's had to take on some tough opponents out of the gate in the Charleston Classic, where it lost to Murray St. and Baylor. What did you learn about St. John's during these games?
For one, the St. John's defense has a ways to go. The team was poor in identifying shooters in their matchup zone, especially in the second half. Both teams put up some big numbers (40 points / 1.12 points per possession from Murray State; 52 points/ 1.49 points per possession from Baylor) in the second half, outside and inside the arc. The coaching staff was upset about those defensive performances, and it's a sign that they're not a finished product on that end.
And the rebounding… last year's issue is again this year's issue. Opposing forwards found their way to offensive rebounds with ease (the Baylor game, if you have a chance to watch it, made people cringe). Murray State's forwards did a decent job on the glass as well, considering they played to get back on defense, not to attack the offensive glass.
But the Johnnies also learned that Phil Greene IV is a steadying influence, able to get his shot off and filling the stat sheet. The team was very good at blocking shots.
4. South Carolina is weak in the post this season. We're currently relying on an undersized freshman forward in Michael Carrera and a center in junior R.J. Slawson who has failed to develop into a quality high-major player over the course of his career. Carrera is a feisty player and the better defender and rebounder of the two, but he's also short for a forward. Will St. John's be able to exploit these weaknesses?
It depends on those players' foot speed, and the St. John's game plan. The Johnnies haven't looked to score in the post off of conventional back-to-the-basket play very much, though that might change versus an undersized front.
What St. John's will do is attack in transition. The wings and forwards are strong finishers on the run, and most of the players are willing to pull up for a shot from anywhere from 10-18 feet - including center Chris Obekpa.
The worry is that South Carolina's urge to rebound will get them second and third shots. Will St. John's work hard and bang against those tough forwards (Carrera, in particular, looks like a player, as does Lakeem Jackson - good energy)? Or will those forwards find more of their shots blocked than they could ever imagine?
5. What are you most looking forward to in this game? Is it an important game for St. John's, or do you perceive it as an easy win?
Every game is important. The Johnnies have fallen behind every team they have played (though the lead by the College of Charleston was about one possession.) and have shown some real flaws throughout - a lack of three-point shooting, an urge to take quick jump shots, weak rebounding at times, defensive holes. I'm looking forward to seeing the Red Storm defend the glass with fundamental boxing out skill and grit, and turning the Gamecocks' missed shots into transition opportunities.
On this side, the fingers are fully crossed.